The Day Sci-fi Hit Its The Thing and Blade Runner

Two science-fiction films released on the same day but failed to live up to box office expectations. They later went on to achieve cult status, cement the legacy of their directors, and inspire countless other entries in the genre.

A science-fiction film arrived in theaters on June 25, 1982, and despite coming from a renowned director, its release was met with minimal fanfare and middling reviews. The movie was overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which came out earlier in the month and sat atop the box office for 16 weeks; audiences emphatically favored an all-time-great crowd-pleaser over an ambitious project with a darker tone. But over time, this film would gain its share of admirers, who transformed it into a cult hit and eagerly debated its biggest unanswered questions. The enthusiasm for the movie was substantial enough that a sequel was made in the 21st century, when history repeated itself and the film failed to light up the box office.

Incredibly, this description could apply to two movies: John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While both films take different routes within the genre—Blade Runner is a futuristic detective noir loosely adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel; The Thing is a terrifying B-movie boasting gnarly practical effects—their shared release date would be unheard of today as major studios map out the calendar to avoid competition and maximize profits. (As if sharing theatrical real estate with E.T. wasn’t challenging enough, Poltergeist, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Rocky III, Conan the Barbarian, Tron, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also came out within the same 10-week window.) The world might not have been ready for The Thing and Blade Runner in the summer of 1982, but 40 years later, Carpenter’s and Scott’s masterpieces still mark the day science-fiction peaked on the big screen.

The Thing was far from a sure, well, thing. Universal had acquired the rights to John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, which was already the basis of the 1951 black-and-white horror film The Thing From Another World, and eyed Tobe Hooper to direct after the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Hooper’s vision, described as an Antarctic version of Moby Dick, was too unwieldy, and coproducer Stuart Cohen feared the movie would be “something akin to a disaster.” Carpenter had his own reservations about helming the remake—he was a fan of The Thing From Another World, and even had the film playing in the background of a scene in Halloween—but believed Campbell’s novella was timely enough that his adaptation could stand on its own.

The Thing, which follows a research group in Antarctica terrorized by a parasitic, extraterrestrial entity that can assume the likeness of its victims, is indebted to special effects and creature designer Rob Bottin, who brought the titular monster to life in all its stomach-turning viscera. These days, visual effects can conjure just about anything, but there’s nothing quite like a man’s chest cavity unfurling into jagged rows of teeth with the help of state-of-the-art prosthetics. Just weeks after Spielberg introduced viewers to a benevolent alien with a love of Reese’s Pieces, Carpenter and Bottin presented a shape-shifting creature capable of grotesque, unspeakable horror. I don’t know how the detached head of an alien posing as a human sprouted giant spider-like legs, but I do know I’ll never get the image out of my head. But for all the deserved attention The Thing’s practical effects received, Carpenter’s film also resonated as a master class in suspense. Because the Thing can perfectly imitate anyone, none of the characters can trust each other and they become increasingly paranoid—in a nerve-racking scene, Kurt Russell’s MacReady takes blood from everyone to suss out the alien, and some of the humans look relieved their own sample passed the test. (Another underrated virtue: The film’s ensemble has strong survival skills, which makes the inevitability of their demise all the more harrowing.) Carpenter keeps that tension going into the ending, when the only survivors, MacReady and Childs (Keith David), share a bottle of whiskey, unsure whether the Thing has taken the form of the other. Whether MacReady or Childs was the Thing has been argued about ever since.